How to Write the "Why This School?" Essay...That Works

Common App Header.png

After most of my students finish their main Common App essays (including crafting their superbly-organized activities lists, and filling in the rest of their standard Common App information) they are usually shocked and bewildered by the sheer number of supplemental essays they need to write. While some of these supplemental essays can be shaved/modified/expanded to work for a few different schools—like an “activity” essay or a “community” essay—there’s one popular topic that just can’t be fudged: the “why this school?" essay. That's the one that's going to need to be specific to each school. 

Luckily for you, I have a general method to figuring out exactly how to craft a compelling “Why This School” essay, and as always, I’ve streamlined it for you! Here are the steps I’d get you to take, were we working together:


Step #1) Know what you want in a college.

This should seem obvious, but turns out, it’s not. Before you can eloquently explain why you are a perfect fit for College X, you need to know what you want to get out of college in the first place. For example:

·       Is there a particular subject you wish to study/major/concentrate in?

·       What do you think you might want to do as a career later on?

·       What extracurriculars MUST you be a part of? Any particular sports or arts programs? Entrepreneurship programs? Volunteer initiatives?

·       Are there particular parts of student life that you want as part of your college experience? (Think: sororities, vegan co-ops, LGBTQ organizing, foreign language housing, a particular quality/personality trait/values the students possess, etc.)


Once you have a rough idea of the type of things you’re looking for, you may proceed to…


Step #2) Do your college research!

Now, I want you to go to the college or university’s website—NOT the College Board or the Fiske Guide or College Confidential. Those are all sources for helpful information ABOUT the college, but what you want right now is that actual, official website itself. You need to comb through the pages of the site, reading and seeing about the institution in their own words. This should occupy a couple of hours, perhaps a little more. However, these sites can be pretty opaque at times, so I’ll tell you where to go:

An "Academics" or "Academic Life" Home Page

Is there a core curriculum that you must take? How many and what type of classes is it? Would you be able to take all the classes YOU’d like to take if you have those requirements? If you are applying to a particular college at a larger university, would you be able to take classes in a different college or department?

Pages for Residential College(s) or Department(s) of Interest

Do they have the major(s) you want to study? What are the major’s requirements? Go through the titles of the classes you’d actually take: do you like what you see? Jot a few of the classes and the professors that excite you down. Are there internship relationships to help you get experience? Write those down.

Student Life

Go through the list of extracurriculars and see if they have what you want. Click on them to read further! Don’t have what you want? See if there’s a process in place to start your own club! Have you visited? What type of people do you want to be around? What are the characteristics/impressions you’ve gotten of the students at College X?

Also keep an eye out for anything special about that school that makes it unique: monthly symposium series, Jan(uary) terms, culminating projects that all seniors do, no core curriculum, etc. Those elements are important to the college, and connecting with the things that make the college unique is a way of showing that you get what makes that school special.

Finally, you’re ready for…


Step #3) College Match-Making

Yes, it sounds like I just went all Tinder on you, but think about it for a moment: the “why this school?” essay is just as much about why THIS institution would be good for YOU as it is about why YOU would be a great addition to the campus. It’s not one-sided. There is no “good enough” or “not good enough” to get in—it’s about both of you being a good fit for the other. And if there’s not enough overlap between who you are and what you want and what the college offers…then odds are pretty high that a) you wouldn’t have much to contribute to the campus and b) you wouldn’t be happy there, anyway, which leads to the thing most colleges dread: attrition!

No one wants that.

So, if after your personalized and thorough research (at least a couple hours of it), you should be pretty stoked to possibly attend College X! After all, if you’ve figured out how to get all your academic and personal needs met, then it probably IS a good fit. Now, you just need to DO THE LEG WORK and SHOW THEM what a great fit you’d actually be! Use your essay to paint the picture of where you’d fit into their campus: what department, what teams, what clubs. Help the admissions officer who'll be reading your essay see you there!


At the same time, don’t be presumptuous! Just like in dating, where you tend to offend more than entice if you just assume the other person likes you and will go out with you, when it comes to the “why this school?” essay, don’t assume you’re a shoo-in! Don’t write things like “When I” or “I can’t wait to” or “I’m excited to.” They make you seem arrogant.

Instead, use the conditional or subjunctive tense of your verbs: “Were I to be accepted,” “I could/would,” “I’m excited by the prospect of….”, etc. These phrases add a healthy dose of humility and optimism.

Also, here’s what NOT to include: College X’s city, that it’s the “best,” how well-known/famous it is, how impressive the name is. That’s just like telling Nick Jonas you want to date him because he’s a celebrity and sings really well, instead of how smart/kind/etc he is (no clue if that’s even true! Jonas fans, please feel free to correct me on the Ivy Lounge Facebook page). The point is, a little personalization goes a long way.

Sounds like a tall order, right? Well, here's my favorite way to organize this essay—simply touch on two different sections:

·       Academics/Career This section/paragraph focuses on your hopes and dreams for your future career and the future area of study that could get you there. What College X offers (department, requirements, classes, career opportunities) that you love. “If I were to attend _____, I’d be excited to study/take/participate in _____.” “I’d see myself _____.”

·       Extracurriculars/Personal - This (usually shorter) section/paragraph focuses on your passions and interests, and shows the admissions officers what College X currently offers that excites you. “I’m excited by the prospect of _____.”  “I see myself living in ______, doing _____.”

Whether you choose to organize your essay in this way or some other way, think about being specific, lively, and most of all, real. You want to be you—you just want to also show the school you're writing about that who YOU really are is a great fit for who THEY really are.


A final thought:

By the time you’ve done the mental and emotional work of plotting out your hypothetical life at College X, you might decide you don’t like it and can’t see yourself there at all! That’s OK. If that’s the case, better to have this essay process teach you that, than to find out after spending a year there, right?

But more often that not, when I start a “WhyThis School” essay with a student, they start to see how they would in fact be happy there if they were admitted! And if you can show that genuine excitement in your essay, they will see it, too.

I hope this helps during the very stressful part of senior year! If you still need help, feel free to get in touch.